I have a very occasional player who gives me a disproportional amount of difficulty as a Dungeon World GM. DW is normally really easy to teach to new players because it has almost everything a player needs on their character sheet—but it pulls off that trick by heavily leaning on knowledge of pop-culture and fantasy tropes that it assumes players have.

This player, though, turns out to be blissfully unaware of the vast majority of pop culture references and genre tropes that appear in the game. They picked the Paladin, and it took me two game sessions to realise that they had no idea what a "oath" meant, what a holy symbol is, and what a paladin actually was. As I've gotten to know them, I've learned that this isn't just a lack of fantasy trope knowledge, they're just generally unaware of and disconnected from the world outside of their life's focus (they're a dedicated visual artist).

They're not a regular player (art keeps them very busy), but when they do play I want to do right by them. I just have no idea how to help them play this game, which relies so much on assumed knowledge to provide the flavour that is at the core of its improvisational engine.

How do I GM better for this one player, who knows none of the fundamental tropes of Dungeon World, in a group that otherwise has this stuff down pat?


5 Answers 5


Dungeon World is really reliant on the tropes made popular by D&D (as mentioned, holy symbols and such). However, those are mainly D&D tropes, not fantasy tropes per se. I would recommend alternative playbooks that does not rely on a knowledge of D&D.

There are two ways to tackle this:

  1. Use existing products. I would recommend the Dungeon World Alternative Playbooks which has an alternative for wizard, paladin and cleric, replacing those with the mage, templar and priest respectively. Those classes relies more on mainstream fantasy tropes, such as Avatar, real life history and video games, and does not assume familiarity with D&D. There are other excellent playbooks - Inverse Worlds and such. Find something that your player can relate to.

  2. Devise a class for the player; see the chapter in Dungeon World for designing your own class, or pick up Class Warfare ( a toolkit for class design for Dungeon World, which works on choosing an archetype, then choosing 3 disciplines for that archetype).

Treat it as a character creation session, where you ask the player what he or she wants to be, then pick the moves that seems to fit.


Educate your player, and make it fun. My friends and I will sometimes do a "movie night" event that's related to a game we're playing. It gets everyone in the mood, can provide some inspiration, gets people less familiar with the setting up to speed, and is simply fun on its own.

The tropes in D&D and Dungeon World are also reflected in various fantasy films. Pick one or two that show aspects of the fantasy genre that your friend is unfamiliar with, and watch them together. A few movies to consider (in no particular order):

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Willow
  • Legend
  • Ladyhawk
  • Dragonslayer (1981)
  • Conan
  • The 13th Warrior
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I would definitely include the Conan movies in there, they show off the classic ragtag-party-goes-on-adventure structure very well. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 25, 2014 at 21:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @evilcandybag good idea, I added it to the list. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jessa
    Dec 26, 2014 at 9:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd also add the 13th warrior. It felt very D&D-dungeon-ish when I looked at the mission part. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Dec 26, 2014 at 9:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I only thing I will disagree is that many of the common tropes you find in fantasy movies are not in D&D - wixards don't memorise spells in LoTR and Conan, clerics and paladins don't exist in Conan and etc. I would suggest Records of Lodoss Wars instead. It is essentially "D&D: The Anime" \$\endgroup\$
    – Extrakun
    Dec 28, 2014 at 8:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ don't forget Earthsea... or the awful Dungeons & Dragons Movies \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Nov 24, 2016 at 21:01

Go by the letter of the game.

Sure, lots of things in DW are established tropes for D&D gamers, but nothing breaks down if you just go by the letter of what's written. If a player asks "what's a holy symbol?" go by the letter and turn it back on them: "well, a cross or something probably counts, what would your religion consider holy?"

I've been in games where deities are nothing like D&D, but the cleric still works (even a cleric of Santa Claus). The cycle of prepare-cast-forget Wizard spells matters, but knowing it comes from Vance (via D&D) doesn't. For that one I usually say something like "magic takes preparation, and sometimes slips away" but let the player fill in the rest.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The trouble is that they don't know what they don't know and don't ask. It only comes up when I eventually realise that the oddness in their play around X is based on their misunderstanding or completely missing the significance or meaning of the fiction of X. For example: choosing Paladin, but they never mention that they're unfamiliar with the concept, and I only realise the problem some sessions in when I get odd results when I engage with their Quest and vows, or introduce relevant religious themes. \$\endgroup\$ May 8, 2015 at 20:33

Why not the simple solution?

Every time a term that has context comes up, ask the player if they understand that context and to explain their understanding to you. If they are off, google it (with them; or have them do it on their own) on D&D related resources - I'm sure some sort of Wikia exists that is reasonably high quality.

Ideally, do this before a given session, so they are (a) prepared in advance and (b) can do it in private with you if they feel embarrassed to be treated like a full-on newbie who knows nothing and (c) don't waste the time of other players.

(However, if both the new player and some other players want to make it a collaborative effort together, explaining the terms, even better for socialization of the playing group. Add beer for those with best explanations).

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Full disclosure: the technique comes not from RPGs, but from dealing with younger kids who have no knowledge of terms and tropes for Mythology and thus can't fully appreciate Percy Jackson books they are reading. \$\endgroup\$
    – DVK
    Dec 26, 2014 at 14:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ TVTropes.org is probably a very handy resource for this kind of thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Smithers
    Dec 26, 2014 at 17:53

Don't play to tropes

One of the MC's agenda items in DW's parent game, Apocalypse World, is Make Apocalypse World seem real.

Import this principle wholesale into Dungeon World and treat the world like its real. Don't play to or rely on tropes. They are shorthand, and they exist because they work. But don't use the shorthand, explain the situation as if it were real. Let the tropes emerge from play.

I am fantasy-savvy. But I have played Dungeon World with a lot of non-savvy types. Not D&D players, fantasy readers, or even viewers of Game of Thrones. And by describing the world and its inhabitants and events as real things, you can make the situation clear to your players.

That means, don't say, "Wouter walks in the door. You can see at a glance that He's a high-level ranger." Instead, describe him as he would appear in a mirror. "A man walks in the door. He has an easy, loping gait that speaks of long roads walked, and long miles traveled where there are no roads. His clothes are worn but you can see the oiled leather has kept his woolens mostly dry despite the drizzle. His boots are scuffed and he carries with him the scents of freshly-turned earth, rich pipe tobacco and thoroughly wet dog. His sword and bow are slung about his shoulders and he shrugs them off as he nods to your group. This must be Wouter, the man you are waiting to meet."

The point is, the characters and NPCs don't know they are in a game or a story. Treat the world they live in like the one you live in, and the important tropes will come from your game.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't help when the tropes embedded in the character sheet are among the ones the player doesn't grasp. (I don't use game-term shorthands in my descriptions, so that's definitely not the source of the issue.) \$\endgroup\$ Dec 28, 2014 at 3:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I just went over the Paladin sheet, @SevenSidedDie. Besides describing a halberd and giving some idea what might be included in adventuring gear, what tropes are you having trouble with, exactly? And if you aren't relying on tropes in play, where does the trouble come from? \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Dec 28, 2014 at 9:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Paladin", "oath", "holy symbol", Christian crusading, angels, the Abrahamic model of god(s), cosmic good vs evil, fantasy, medieval history—in a word, "everything." Imagine someone who has dedicated their life to visual arts and has shut out everything not directly incorporated into their art. I tried to emphasise in the Q that it's the tropes DW uses to communicate flavour, genre, and character theme, not the ones I may or may not be using. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 28, 2014 at 19:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ What were the things that drew this player into the game? Maybe you need to start there and expand? It seems that there is a lack of awareness of more than just genre tropes due to his intense focus. So perhaps there are hooks in his original interests that could draw him more into the world. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Dec 28, 2014 at 20:44
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ It is not an answer (hence a comment) but ... wow it's so strange that an artist has shut down everything... usually art is enriched by connection with the rest of the world and artists are curious types. Well, the world is varied. \$\endgroup\$
    – Francesco
    Oct 5, 2016 at 5:36

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